Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's debt limit proposal illustrates everything that is wrong in Washington. It would enable members of Congress from both political parties to avoid making tough decisions on taxes and spending while kicking the monumental deficit problem down the road. It spares Congress any fault if the nation defaults on its debt, while placing any blame for new borrowing on President Barack Obama. And it exposes lawmakers as opportunists and not leaders for a last-minute scheme that is constitutionally suspect. Obama should reject this gimmick and force a return to serious negotiations.
Under the proposed arrangement, Obama could unilaterally lift the nation's borrowing authority by $2.4 trillion in three installments over the coming year. He would have to marry any increase in borrowing with spending cuts of equal size. Those cuts would not require congressional approval. Congress could vote only on whether to approve raising the debt ceiling, and the president could veto a rejection, absent a two-thirds vote to override.
Congressional leaders are rarely quick to surrender legislative branch authority. They were right, for example, to demand that Obama seek congressional approval for continuing military operations against Libya. But now, when the issue is cutting spending or raising revenue, congressional leaders are fine with sitting on the sidelines and not accepting responsibility.
McConnell's plan is a measure of how Republicans have boxed themselves in by insisting that additional tax revenue not be included in any budget deal. That Democrats are even open to this scheme is a measure of how loath liberal lawmakers are to cut entitlement programs and lose the ability to use their preservation as a campaign issue against Republicans in 2012.
The Constitution gives budget-making authority to Congress, and there is no emergency here so pressing or unforeseen that warrants a wholesale abdication of this separation of powers. The administration and Congress have until Aug. 2 to increase the debt ceiling to enable the nation to keep paying its bills. This deal would allow Congress to avoid its responsibility. It removes tax increases from consideration as part of a budget compromise. It gives Republicans a new political cycle to bash Obama on borrowing. It stays the pain Democrats would face in voting to cut Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs. And it puts off until the next campaign or later a comprehensive deal to address the nation's debt while protecting the sick, elderly and jobless in the lagging economic recovery.
Obama has time to turn this discussion back toward a responsible course. McConnell came up with this work-around only after Republicans started getting hammered over fears of what their intransigence would disrupt — the stability of global credit or (even worse) the orderly flow of Social Security checks. The debt crisis did not originate with Obama, and he should not accept sole responsibility now. A broader deal that puts America's borrowing capacity on firmer ground, focuses the nation's spending priorities and includes more tax revenue to stabilize the budget over the long term serves the nation better than a constitutional trick that rewards politicians for not doing their jobs.